As I stand on Manikharnika Ghat, the nothingness I experience leaves me speechless. Clouds of white smoke fly away, but the pungent smells I expected are conspicuously missing: it so happens that the fragrance of burning sandalwood overpowers that of the bodies being cremated in the open. How old were the devotees we are seeing off? Where did they come from? What were their lives like? So many answers lie behind the white shrouds that cover the men and the red ones that cover the women who lay under the pyre as they get purified by a slow but engulfing fire. I find myself surprised by the unexpected ease I confront death with for the first time of my life. It had never occurred to me that death could be beautiful.
Passing away in Banaras, otherwise known as Varanasi, is seen as a privilege by a large number of Indians. Those who become the beloved of God in Varanasi attain moksha, that is the escape of the cycle of death and rebirth. Old and ailing people from all over Mother India make their way to the City of Light, where they wait for their fateful moment to come. It strikes me that expecting the kindest death by the Hindus’ holiest may make the truth of an impending end easier to contemplate. After all, what comes next can only be sublime attainment.
Watching the rituals that surround cremation, I fathom just how important they are to the peace of mind of the living. The relatives of the deceased go at length to ensure the body is washed and wrapped in accordance to tradition. They meticulously calculate amount of wood necessary for the cremation to be complete and successful. They cary the body beautifully decorated with flowers on a bamboo stretcher from where the death occurred to the burning ghat while chanting in a solemn manner. After their fifth walking tour of the burning ghat, the in-charges proceed with lighting the fire. The unfolding ceremony makes me realize I would feel accomplished and in a better place to kiss a family member goodbye if I was able to give him or her such a dignified passing. The importance Hindus attach to death rituals hits home.
As ashes are unceremoniously shovelled into the holy Ganga, all that reverberates in my mind is: “That’s death? That’s it?” The hustle and bustle of Old Banaras goes on uninterrupted around Manikharnika Ghat. People go about their day unmoved by the ubiquitous cremation underway, or the 120 others that occur every day for that matter. In Varanasi, death is unmistakably part of life. Very simply, it breathes through the piles of wood that lie here and there, the countless processions that march through the city on each day, the shroud sellers and the Ganges. Yet, death does not frustrate the vivacity of the city, its bright yellows, wonderful reds, breathtaking river worshipping ceremonies or its lively night markets. Life and death coexist in a unique manner, such that none of them looks any more significant than the other.
By respect for the deceased, taking photographs of the ghat is forbidden. The pictures below are of Varanasi.